Dems reprimand top DOJ antitrust official for giving 'lobbying advice' about T-Mobile-Sprint merger

Dems reprimand top DOJ antitrust official for giving 'lobbying advice' about T-Mobile-Sprint merger
© Aaron Schwartz

A group of House and Senate Democrats on Friday reprimanded the Department of Justice's (DOJ) top antitrust enforcer for giving "lobbying advice" to a private company ahead of the controversial T-Mobile-Sprint merger.

In a letter led by Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSocial media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates MORE (D-Minn.) and Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineClark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race Races heat up for House leadership posts The folly of Cicilline's 'Glass-Steagall for Tech' MORE (D-R.I.), the lawmakers asked Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim to answer a series of questions about whether he improperly intervened in the controversial $26 billion deal.

A recent court case unearthed eyebrow-raising texts between Delrahim and Dish CEO Charlie Ergen, eliciting fresh criticism from Democrats who have long opposed the T-Mobile-Sprint deal, which they say could result in higher prices for telecom customers across the country.

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In the texts, which were dated before the DOJ had even officially approved the deal, Delrahim encouraged Ergen — who stood to benefit from the T-Mobile-Sprint merger — to tap his "senator friends" to push the deal through. 

"We write to express serious concerns about reports that you encouraged Dish Network Corporation’s (Dish) Chairman to urge members of the Senate to contact the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding its review of the proposed merger," wrote the lawmakers, who all serve on either the Senate or House Judiciary committees. 

Delrahim apparently told Ergen to ask senators to press Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai over the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, according to evidence introduced in court by the state attorneys general seeking to block the deal over the summer. Ultimately, both the FCC and DOJ approved the deal.

The DOJ confirmed that it has received the letter from the lawmakers. A spokesperson pointed out that the judge in New York, the FCC, the DOJ and multiple state attorneys general have determined that the merger "does not violate antitrust laws."

"American consumers will benefit greatly from the new competition created by the development of robust next generation wireless communications, thanks to the work of the Department and the various State Attorneys General," the spokesperson said. "Of course, some special interests that will be displaced by the competition will not be happy, but consumers will be the winners from the new competition." 

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A federal judge in New York recently approved the lucrative deal, ruling against a challenge from the broad coalition of more than a dozen state attorneys general.

The DOJ approved the merger under the condition that the combined T-Mobile and Sprint would help stand up Dish, a satellite television company, as a viable fourth competitor in the wireless market. Critics have long criticized the decision, pointing out Dish has little experience in the market and likely couldn't serve as a serious competitor to Verizon, AT&T or the new T-Mobile.

"Many legitimate questions have been raised about Dish’s ability to become a viable, independent wireless competitor," the lawmakers wrote.

"Law enforcement and regulatory decisions must be based on an objective assessment of the law and the facts, not on political pressure applied by one federal agency against another by way of private sector proxies," they concluded. "The Antitrust Division should focus on vigorous antitrust enforcement, not providing lobbying advice to private parties to influence the regulatory processes of other federal agencies."

Updated 5:35 P.M.